Lighting for the Bath

Mount the vanity lights at 5' 6" above the finished floor. The ceiling fixture provides both ambient and decorative light. Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead Interior Design: Nancy Satterberg Photo: Dennis Anderson

Mount the vanity lights at 5' 6" above the finished floor. The ceiling fixture provides both ambient and decorative light.
Lighting Design: Randall Whitehead
Interior Design: Nancy Satterberg
Photo: Dennis Anderson

Finally, bathrooms are getting their due in the design world. Kitchens have enjoyed luxury upgrades for many years, but the bath has always seemed somehow less important. It has been seen as a purely functional space where you shower, shave, apply make-up and use the toilet. Why spend money here when there are lots of other rooms that felt more deserving? Now homeowners, in much greater numbers, are realizing that the bath can be a soothing retreat, a little oasis away from the chaos of day-to-day living. It has become the one room in the house in which you can lock the door and keep the rest of the world out without feeling least for a little while.

The Task at Hand
Well designed bathroom lighting is of the utmost importance. Take task lighting: more often than not people use inadequate lighting techniques for much-needed illumination at the sink. How many times have we seen a dramatic photograph of a vanity with a recessed downlight directly over the basin? It makes for a great shot, but imagine yourself standing at the mirror with that harsh light hitting the top of your head. Remember when, as a child, you would hold a flashlight under your chin to create a scary face? Well, with strong overhead single source illumination, the same thing happens, only in reverse - long, dark shadows appear under your eyes, nose and chin. This type of lighting is extremely bad for applying make-up or for shaving and can make for a depressing start to your day.

Another typical arrangement is the use of one luminaire (what the lighting industry calls light fixtures, in order to confuse consumers) surface-mounted above the mirror. This is only slightly better than a recessed light. At best, it illuminates the top half of the face and makes the bottom half fall into shadow. This is an especially hard light by which to shave, as there are only so many ways to tilt your head to catch the proper light.

For the best task lighting, use two luminaries, flanking the mirror area above the sink, to provide the necessary cross-illumination (see photo). These can flank a hanging mirror or be mounted on a full-wall mirror. Many new, well-designed North American and European luminaires are perfect for this type of application. In addition to incandescent versions, both compact fluorescent and LED options are becoming more readily available. To protect the homeowner from electric shock, specifiers should ensure fixtures located this close to water are installed with an instantaneous circuit shutoff, called a GFI (Ground Fault Interrupter).

Lighting Over the Tub and Shower
While it's most critical to correctly illuminate the task area at the vanity, lighting other areas of the bath also require your careful attention to design: for instance, tubs and showers also need good task lights. For this purpose, recessed luminaires with white opal diffusers are commonly used and relatively effective. One drawback is that many of the units on the market project approximately 2 inches below the ceiling line and may not be visually comfortable.Those who are sensitive to bright light might prefer a luminaire with a lens that is flush or regressed into the ceiling. However, with such a fully recessed unit, the upper third of the shower or tub area will end up being a little dimmer, but these luminaires do reduce glare Some companies, such as Lucifer, Juno and Halo,have developed a watertight, recessed, adjustable luminaire that uses an MR16 lamp or an LED source. This allows the light to be focused. Make sure that all luminaires in the bath are listed for damp locations by CSA, UL, ETL or other approved testing laboratories. You don’t want the fixtures to show signs of rusting.

The Bottom Line
While task lighting is the most crucial for the bath, don't forget about adding some decorative and ambient light, in order to create the best lighting scenario. The ambient light will fill the room with a warm glow, while the decorative lighting adds visual sparkle. There are ceiling mounted fixtures and wall sconces that can provide both decorative and ambient light.

With the right lighting in the bathroom, you can always put your best face forward!